BRUEGEL, Pieter the Elder
(b. ca. 1525, Brogel, d. 1569, Brussel)
Drawing on paper, 224 x 300 mm
Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts, Brussels
Between 1556 and 1559, at the request of Hieronymus Cock, the well-known publisher of prints, Pieter Bruegel made the initial drawings for two series of engravings dedicated to the Seven Mortal Sins and the Seven Virtues respectively. In the Brussels drawing, which represents the cardinal virtue of Prudence, the figures are making all kinds of provident preparations for the future, following the recommendations of the Latin caption. "If you wish to be prudent, set your eyes on the future and make provision for everything that can happen".
In the left foreground people are busy salting meat, the barn is being filled with provisions and firewood, and pots of preserves line the window sills. Behind, figures are renovating a dilapidated house. To the right a woman is extinguishing, out of prudence, a fire under a boiler. Above her lies a sick, old man. A surgeon standing next to his bed is producing a diagnosis from a urine sample. The sitting man is perhaps a priest who is confessing the old man, or a notary called in to write a will. In the middle of all this activity stands Prudentia, holding in her left hand a mirror, pointing to self knowledge. On her head is a sieve, to separate out Good from Bad, Truth from Lies. Under her feet lie fire ladders, and next to her leather f re buckets, a fire-hose and a firehook.
The drawing is executed in an expressive script of dots, short strokes and small hooks. Bruegel's uncommonly accurate depiction is based on a sharp observation of nature. The final composition is not, however, drawn from life, but comes out of Bruegel's imagination, possibly supplemented with elements from older iconographic traditions as in medieval manuscripts. Inspiration was also available from early Christian and contemporary literature.
Bruegel was a cultivated man, who felt as much at home among simple people as among scholars and philosophers. He also remained faithful to his social background - that of a humanistically educated member of the merchant class - as shown by the way he uses clearly recognisable tableaux from everyday life to illustrate the virtue of prudence. The result is a masterly interweaving of the various genre scenes into a kaleidoscopic picture of reality.